In light of Elliott Smith's death, it's tempting to forgive the weaknesses of his sixth and final studio album, From A Basement On The Hill, and treat it as an unimpeachable epitaph. But that would be inconsistent with the spirit of Smith's catalog, built as it is on imperfection and fallibility, on finding inspiration and beauty in cracks and faults. Like his life (which paired bursts of incredible creativity with an intense heroin addiction) and even his death ("The mode… is undetermined," reads the official report), the album he left behind turns out to be messy, complicated, and unquestionably not his defining work. That's the bad news.
The good news, if that phrase can be applied to an album released slightly less than a year after its creator's violent death: Even though Smith didn't actually complete it, From A Basement On The Hill remains a collection of new songs by one of the most emotive and brilliant songwriters of his generation. Assembled from many recording sessions by longtime friend Joanna Bolme (a member of Stephen Malkmus' Jicks) and producer Rob Schnapf (who'd worked with Smith on his previous three records), the album fulfills Smith's wish to strike a balance between the simple directness of his early work and the buzzing, melodic layers of 2000's Figure 8. At one point, he apparently considered a double album splitting time between his two sides, but From A Basement On The Hill meshes them, and with a large measure of success.
Fans of Smith's minimal masterpiece Either/Or who were put off by the grandiosity—and occasional accompanying distance—of Figure 8 should find solace in the Nick Drake-y "Let's Get Lost" and the barely there "Last Hour," a perfect encapsulation of the qualities that made his quiet songs resonate so loudly. Matched with the tragic, heroin-referencing "Fond Farewell," they provide emotional ballast for musically weightier fare like "Coast To Coast" (which rocks enough to recall Smith's days in Heatmiser) and the bouncy, pretty "Pretty (Ugly Before)." Slightly overlong and sometimes stitched-together, From A Basement On The Hill sags in spots. "Strung Out Again" meanders through well-worn territory, while "Don't Go Down" might have been better served by a gentler touch. Yet in the end, the album still earns its place—not at the top, and unfortunately as a bookend—in a jarringly important body of work.